Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame/HoopsHall.com
Above All Else, Damon Bailey Was a Winner
What if in 1990, the day after Bedford North Lawrence won the state high school basketball championship at the RCA Dome before 41,000 people and a national television audience, someone had asked you to predict what Damon Bailey would be doing 26 years later.
Would you have thought he'd be a former NBA star? A Naismith Hall of Famer? Head coach at Indiana University? Mayor of Bedford? Governor of the state of Indiana?
Each of those guesses would have seemed more believable than what has turned out to be the truth: assistant women's basketball coach at Butler University.
It might not be what anyone expected, Bailey included, but the point of this story, and his story, is that it's all good. He's there by choice, helping coach a team that includes his oldest daughter, but open to the idea of staying beyond her career and proving his heart is in the soul of basketball rather than personal wealth or prestige.
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Bailey will be honored at the Pacers' game against Boston at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Thursday in the next Hickory Night celebration, honoring Indiana's basketball heritage. It would require a lot of head-scratching to come up with someone who represents that heritage better than he does.
He was a high school star – make that sensation – who led his team to the state championship, set a state career scoring record and earned Mr. Basketball honors. He was declared by some the national Player of the Year, and received more national acclaim rivaled only by Sports Illustrated cover boy Rick Mount in 1966. He went on to become the Big Ten Freshman of the Year at Indiana University and earned first-team all-Big Ten and third-team all-American recognition as a senior, contributing to hugely successful teams along the way. He was drafted by the Pacers and spent a season on their injured list, then played for Fort Wayne's entry in the CBA. He coached the Bedford boys' and girls' teams, winning a state championship with the girls, and now helps with Butler's women's team.
From the perspective of a middle-aged man – he turned 45 in October – he can look back on his unique career with pride and few regrets. But his most impressive accomplishment could very well be his sanity. While everyone around him seemed to lose theirs during his high school and college careers, he has remained grounded, never straying far from reality.
Bailey was more than a standout player. Many older fans viewed him as a relic from a time gone by, a clean-cut, humble small town kid straight out of a Disney movie. He still receives autograph requests in the mail, still gets photos of newborn babies who have been named after him, still gets heartfelt letters from elderly people telling him how much they enjoyed watching him play. He still gets recognized by strangers on airplanes, too, which provides trash-talking ammunition for the Butler players.
He appreciates the interest, but steadfastly avoids most opportunities for recognition. If you want to know the truth, he had to be cajoled into participating in Thursday's Hickory celebration, and agreed to it only out of respect for the fans who have been so devoted all these years.
"Those things are burdensome at times, but it's like everything else in life, there's good and bad in having that notoriety," he said.
Such notoriety it was, too. Bailey became a national sports figure in the eighth grade, when IU coach Bob Knight's adoration for him was revealed in a best-selling book, 'A Season on the Brink.' He was a marked man after that, forced to live with more celebrity than would be healthy for any high school kid, or adult for that matter. His parents and high school coach helped him deal with it, though, and he managed to live up to the hype throughout high school. He led Bedford North Lawrence to the final four of the state tournament three of his four seasons as a starter and then carried them to the championship as a senior in the single-class tournament days. He scored the final 11 points of that game, then ran into the stands to hug his parents, writing the perfect ending to what seemed a fictional story.
He was the sole reason that game was played at a domed stadium to accommodate the fan interest, and the sole reason it was televised nationally on ESPN, but he would have been just fine without all of that. The hype and hyper-attention meant nothing to him.
"It was what it was," he said. "I played the game because I loved it.
"(Fame) just happened for me at such a young age that it was my life. I don't know anything different. I wasn't a player who all of a sudden as a senior started getting recognition. I just grew up that way. It was just everyday life to me."
He's grateful for one thing, though. Imagine if he had to go through all that in today's social media environment, where every move, every reaction, every success and failure would be dissected by friend and foe alike.
"I would have hated to be playing in that world," he said.
It now seems apparent Bailey matured faster than most boys, physically and emotionally. As an eighth grader, he played like a high school kid. As a high school player, he played like a college kid. But by the time he was finished with his college career, he was no longer the best athlete on the court. He got by on skill and savvy, and despite two knees in need of surgery.
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Adjusting from an off-guard role to point guard made the transition to an NBA career that much more difficult, a matter of being in the right place at the right time at best. The Pacers seemed like the right place at the time, though. Bailey's popularity was such that 4,538 fans attended a July intrasquad scrimmage between draft picks and free agent hopefuls at Market Square Arena after the Pacers made him the 44th overall selection. He wound up having surgery on both knees, and spent the following season on the injured list while rehabbing them.
He was released in training camp in 1995 after failing to beat out Mark Jackson, Travis Best and Haywoode Workman for one of the point guard openings. He had averaged 5.5 points in six preseason games, hitting 11-of-21 field goals and all 10 foul shots. It's hardly unusual to release a player after that type of pre-season production, but Bailey was not the usual roster candidate. His release was big news, and somewhat controversial among fans.
"I was in a hotbed of basketball in North Carolina where they kind of revere high school and college players," Pacers coach Larry Brown said at the time. "But I've never seen anything like this with him."
It was at that moment Bailey proved his love for the game, however. Some players accustomed to stardom would have retired right there, and found a new career or gone back home to live off their name. He went to Fort Wayne to play for the Fury of the Continental Basketball Association. He stayed four seasons, earning first-team all-CBA honors in 1998 and a second-team selection in '99, but couldn't break into the NBA. A brief tryout with Cleveland was as close as he got after the Pacers released him.
He played on the U.S. Pan American Games silver medal-winning team in 1999, averaging 10 points per game, and was planning to go back to the CBA for another season before another knee injury led him into retirement from playing. At that point there was no point in trying to keep the dream alive. He's now had seven knee surgeries since college; nobody can say he didn't give the game his best shot.
Although he never played for the Pacers, the benefit of his time with them were great and varied. He got both knees fixed, at their expense, and his two-year guaranteed contract paid him a total of $375,000. He also observed nearly every practice and game throughout the 1994-95 season, including when Reggie Miller's eight-points-in-8.9 seconds spree in Madison Square Garden nearly carried the Pacers to the NBA Finals.
He had once been the 10-year-old boy who thought he was going to play in the NBA and make a million dollars. It didn't work out for him, but he got a lot closer to it than most, and he learned from the likes of Brown, Miller, Jackson, Byron Scott and others.
"The one thing that surprised me about that level -- because I always considered myself a smart player -- was the level they see the game," he said. "I mean, Reggie is a great talent, but just the mental side of the game was really what opened my eyes. I learned a lot of the nuances at that level.
"It was a great experience."
So, too, is coaching, where the purity of Bailey's devotion to basketball still shines through. He's been a co-owner and active participant in the Hawkins Bailey Warehouse, a Bedford-based supplier of heavy duty maintenance products in central and southern Indiana since 1994. He's always made time for coaching, however, whether it's in camps, for AAU teams, at Bedford North Lawrence or Butler. His oldest daughter, Alexa, is a sophomore and starting point guard. Another daughter, Loren, is a freshman at Butler, who gave up the game after high school. His son, Brayton, is a promising freshman player at BNL.
If it's not what Bailey expected to be doing all those years ago, it is what he loves. He did all he could to dissuade his daughters from playing, partly because he didn't want them to face the pressure of being Damon Bailey's daughter.
Since retiring, Bailey has found enjoyment in the women's game, where his players seem less focused on going pro and more devoted to playing by the ideals of basketball. Even better, he gets to coach it at a college that clings to those same ideals.
"Butler is still to me what Indiana basketball is about," said Bailey, who stays in an on-campus residence two or three nights a week during the season, but makes the 90-minute commute to Bedford on the other days. "Basketball today has gotten so commercialized. It's about the film room and the locker room and the training room. You have to do that to compete for today's athlete, but still the mentality that's here is more what I grew up with."
Bailey doesn't live in the past, though. Other than an occasional game of H-O-R-S-E with his players, he doesn't compete any longer. Don't look for him in the "noon ball" games at Butler. He doesn't recall ever going back to watch a recording of his state championship game, either. He's not that interested, and he tries to discourage his kids from watching it, too.
"I don't like them to, because everything I yell at them about not doing, they point out that I didn't do it either," he said, laughing.
Those kids can't criticize his record, though. He won that state championship at Bedford, he was a starter on two Big Ten championship teams and a Final Four team at IU. He's been an assistant to Kurt Godlevske on one state championship team in Bedford, and the head coach of another.
Now he's at Butler, once again assisting Godlevske and trying to contribute to the dreams of younger players who probably can't appreciate how he so deftly traversed the thickets of fame, and why he's so content despite never fulfilling his own dream.
"For me, it was always about winning," Bailey said. "There were times I was asked to score, and there were times I didn't feel I was the best option for us. At the end of the day if you're involved in a successful team, that's nothing they can take away from you."
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